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12 Things to KNOW Before Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

12 Things to KNOW Before Hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The beautiful blue waters, unique peaks, and volcanic landscape of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing draw people from all over the world come to New Zealand and explore Tongariro National Park. Lord of the Rings fans are drawn to this area as well, because many iconic scenes in this popular franchise were filmed in the park.  

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing has been deemed the best single-day hike in New Zealand, and is also one of the top ten day hikes in the world. In fact, some refer to it as the best single-day hike in the world.  

As you make your way through Tongariro National Park, the oldest national park in New Zealand and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are things you will want to know. After all, there are many popular hikes in New Zealand, and the Alpine Crossing just so happens to be at the top of that list.

It is very difficult, however. You will want to be prepared before you embark on this adventure. 

If you’re heading to the national park, to Lake Taupo, or to anywhere else in the heart of New Zealand’s North Island, this hike is a must. We’ve compiled a guide to help you discover the best time of year to visit, what you should wear, how difficult the hike might be, and even how to find some LOTR filming locations.  

So, stick with us for a while. We’ve got you covered! 

1. About the Tongariro Alpine Crossing  

Bailey walks along a boardwalk on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand
Mt Doom!
Green volcanic lake on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand
The volcanic lakes!
  • Location: Tongariro National Park on New Zealand’s North Island  
  • Difficulty: Strenuous  
  • Time to Complete: 6 to 9 hours 
  • Distance: 19.4 km (12 miles) point-to-point (prepare transportation at one end) 
  • Elevation Gain: When hiking from Mangatepopo to Ketetahi parking lots- gain: 765 meters (2509 ft), loss: 1125 meters (3690 ft) 

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is one of the most difficult day hikes on the North Island that stretches for about 19 km (12 miles) from end to end. This crossing is not meant to be hiked as a loop, especially because it tends to take visitors anywhere from 6 to 9 hours to successfully make it from one end to the other.  

This means that you need to arrange transportation either to the starting point or from the end of your hike, but we can dive more into that later.  

The hike can be closed during bad weather and is quite dangerous in bad conditions, including the majority of the winter season. While many people complete the trail safely, there have been some casualties over the years and, on average, about 50 people need rescuing annually.  

We don’t want to steer you away from this incredible hike, but want you to be prepared to take it seriously and know your limits. Overall, we had no issues when we completed the hike, and were able to enjoy the views of all the peaks, the foliage, and the waters below us. 

When you consider that 150,000 people walk the track each year, the most of any trail in New Zealand, you’ll see that the ratio of those who end up needing some help is quite minimal.  

The Tongariro Crossing website also has daily updates about weather conditions and the level of volcanic activity to help better prepare you. 

2. Where is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing 

Bailey stands on a viewpoint on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand
The landscape is harsh but stunning!

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is located in the heart of New Zealand’s North Island, and is surrounded by the national park of the same name. The area is bordered by the Kaimanawa Forest Park, Taupo, and other popular outdoor areas.  

Visiting this area is a common stop on a North Island road trip and is usually done after exploring Rotorua or, if you’re coming from the south, Wellington

Related Read: If you love to hike, be sure to take the ferry to the South Island and check out some of the best hikes on the South Island!

3. How difficult is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing? 

A lady walks up a pathway on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand
It’s not easy!
Bailey looks down at the valley on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand
But the views are worth the effort!

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a difficult hike. Not only is this a full-day commitment, but there is quite a bit of elevation gain to consider.  

During the summer months when it is warmer, you’ll find very little shade. In the winter, it is cold with lots of snow and the risk of avalanches. 

You should also have a decent level of fitness and experience hiking before you tackle the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It can take some people up to 9 hours to complete, and with an elevation gain of over 700 meters, this is not an easy trail by any means.

We recommend starting early and taking breaks as needed so that you don’t overdo it, and can successfully complete the trek in a way that you enjoy. 

4. What is the best time of year to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing?  

People walk up the highest point of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand
This entire are is covered in snow in winter!

Summer is going to be the best time to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Even though there is a lack of shade, this is objectively the best, safest, time of year to embark on this trek.  

Especially without extensive alpine experience, rain and snow can be very dangerous conditions. In the winter, these are conditions you are likely to face. If it’s possible to avoid planning a trip during New Zealand’s winter months, from about May through August, that is best.  

Instead, try to make this trek during December through March, because there will be less runoff after the snow and ice melt, and you also won’t accidentally stumble upon an unseasonably cold day in the fall.  

October through May is the peak season for hikers, so as long as you end up at Tongariro National Park during these months, you should be golden. 

Note: I don’t recommend hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in the winter months unless you have alpine experience and go with an expert guide.

5. Where can you park while you hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing?  

Bailey looks over at Mount Doom, New Zealand aka Mt Raupehu
Bailey stands near a puddle after rain on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand

The next big question is parking. It should be noted that the hike begins in one car park, and ends in another. So besides finding parking, you’ll need to organize a shuttle at least one-way (to return to your car at the end of the hike.)

If you don’t have a car, you can take a shuttle from Turangi or a shuttle from Taupo. These are both two-way options, so that you can be driven to and from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing easily.  

The Taupo shuttle will drop you off at the Mangatepopo car park, which starts the crossing, at about 7 am. They give you 8 hours to complete the hike, and then pick you back up at around 3:30 pm at the Ketetahi car park where the crossing ends. You should be back in Taupo by 5 pm, give or take. 

The Turangi shuttle is quite similar, taking you to the beginning of the trail and leaving at 5:30, 6:30, 7:30, or 8:30 am out of Turangi. It will allow you lots of time to hike, and then picks you back up at 2pm, 3pm, 4pm, or 5:30 pm.  

If you do wish to drive your own car, you should know that Mangatepopo Car Park, the beginning of the trek, has a 4-hour parking limit. This is not enough for anyone to complete the crossing, not to mention get back to the car. So, you will need to rely on a shuttle service regardless.  

It is best to park at the end, at the Ketetahi car park, and then take a shuttle to the beginning of the trail, at Mangatepopo.  

I recommend booking this shuttle service that includes a free secure parking space for your car. It also includes transport back to your car at the end of the hike. The shuttle service costs $45 NZD and it’s great because you can book ahead.

Unless you have a friend to drop you off and pick you up, you cannot hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing without organizing a shuttle of some capacity. It’s just the way the parking works.

Note: You can park at Mangatepopo car park for 4 hours and just do a short day hike on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, but you will miss most of the highlights of the trail. Parking inspectors check this parking lot very frequently, so if you stay longer than 4 hours, you will get a ticket or worse, towed.

It’s simple, if you want to hike the entire Tonagaririo Crossing (and you should!) then just book this one-way shuttle!

Alternatively, book the Tonagririo Circuit and hike the entire loop over 3 nights (more on that below!)

6. What to wear/ bring for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing?  

Bailey walks along a boardwalk with a view of Mount Ruapehu or Mount Doom on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
I never get sick of this view!

What you wear and bring will depend heavily on the season. I recommend lots of layers, regardless of when you visit, because temperatures and elements will change as you both lose and gain elevation on this crossing.  

Layers for the wind, rain, and cold are important, even in the summer months. You’ll want at least a pair of runners if the weather is good, but hiking boots or shoes are always going to be the best bet.  

Hiking poles are a must, in my book, as you gain elevation, and a hat will help protect you from the lack of shade on this trail.  

A first-aid kit, at least 2L of water, a map, and some snacks that are high in energy and protein will ensure that you have a safer, easier trek, as well.  

Oh, and don’t forget a camera! These are views that you won’t want to forget. 

7. Where should you stay before hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing?  

A room at Chateau Tongariro Hotel
Photo credit: Chateau Tongariro Hotel

Whakapapa Village

There is a small village called Whakapapa Village where the Tongariro National Park visitor center is located. Here, there are a couple of hotels you can stay at. These are very close to the start of the Tongariro Circuit but still a short drive from the start of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing at about 15 minutes to Mangatepopo car park.

Chateau Tongariro Hotel is the perfect place to stay in Tongariro National Park if you don’t want to sacfrice luxury. The hotel features a fitness center, an indoor heated plunge pool, as well we a sauna – perfect for soothing those sore legs after your hike. The rooms are gorgeous, and onsite you’ll also find restaurants, bars, and a cafe. Oh, and they even offer a High Tea experience!

For something a little more budget-friendly, consider Skotel Alpine Resort. This is actually New Zealand’s highest hotel! This hotel features everything from budget backpacker rooms to queen rooms with ensuite. The hotel also features a games room with a pool table as well as a hot tub!

Taupo

Many people choose to hike the Tongariro Crossing on a day trip from Taupo. There are tons of hotels available in Taupo, and you can simply book this shuttle for transport to and from the hike.

Hilton Lake Taupo offers high-end accommodation treats you to views overlooking the valley and Lake Taupo with spacious junior suites or apartment-style rooms available. You’ll love the extra living space and walk-in showers along with furnished private balconies to take in the view. There’s also an outdoor thermally heated pool, tennis courts, gym, restaurant, and lounge bar. Rooms are around $250-400 USD a night.

Taupo Debretts Spa Resort is a budget-friendly hotel with a wide variety of accommodations available, this is a great option for families! You can stay in the lodge with a standard room or book an entire cabin to stay in. The resort is only a couple of minutes from the lake or take advantage of the natural hot springs on site. There are pools and waterslides to enjoy, a playground, and a spa. Basic rooms start at only $50 USD and cabins are under $100 USD a night.

8. What is the Tongariro Northern Circuit?  

Bailey stands at the sign for the Tongariro Northern Circuit
Ready to start the circuit!
Camping on the Tongariro Northern Circuit
Camping on the circuit!

The Tongariro Northern Circuit is a great hike for those looking for a little extra adventure during their time in Tongariro National Park. It includes the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, but gives you a few more days’ worth of beautiful scenery and intensive hiking.  

The stunning walk circles Mount Ngauruhoe, which also happens to be an active volcano. Not to worry, the volcano is currently dormant, but has erupted about 61 times since the mid-1800s. You’ll also go around Mount Tongariro, of course.  

The entire circuit is 43.1km, or about 27 miles long, which is completed as a loop. It is most often completed in about 3-4 days or so.  

In that case, you will want to prepare for 2-3 overnight stays on the circuit.

If you are very fit and an experienced hiker, the trek is possible to complete in just 2 days with one overnight stay. Each day will take at least 8 hours, though. 

Overnight Stays on the Circuit 

There are three huts with nearby campsites on the circuit: Mangatepopo, Oturere, and Waihohonu. 

Up until 2012, there was a Ketetahi hut and campsite, but those are no longer available for accommodation following damage in the August 2012 volcanic eruption. 

If you visit during the Great Walks season, aka busy season, from late October to early May, you must book your huts or campsites ahead of time. Other times of year, the accommodations are first come, first served.  

Cost of Hiking the Tongariro Circuit 

There is no cost to hike the circuit itself, but you will need to pay fees to stay at the huts and campsites along the circuit. These fees depend on the time of year that you visit, and whether it is within the Great Walks season or outside of that time. 

Hut Fees will cost $28 NZD for children and $56 NZD for adult international visitors within the Great Walks season. Outside of that peak season, all adults will pay $15 NZD per person and children will be free. 

There are rates for New Zealanders during Great Walks season, which sees adults paying $37 NZD and children being able to enter for free, though a booking is still mandatory.  

Campsites are less expensive, at an international rate of $24 NZD per night for adults and $12 NZD per night for children during peak season. New Zealanders pay $16 NZD per night for adults and children are free, with a mandatory booking.  

Outside of Great Walks season, all adult visitors pay $5 NZD per night and children are all free.  

These are great rates, regardless of the time of year, even in comparison to many less popular campsites in other parts of the world. 

Note: If you want to hike the Circuit, you must stay at huts or campsites. Plan ahead for this if you are hiking during the Great Walks Season and book in advance!

9. Is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing Suitable for Children?  

Bailey walks up a path on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing on the North Island of New Zealand
It’s a hard trail with very little protection from the elements!

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is suitable for children, but with certain limitations.  

Like adults, kids should be fit with some hiking experience to make sure that they can handle, and enjoy, the duration of this difficult hike. If you are an outdoorsy family, this could be a great option for you! 

The recommended starting age for this hike is anywhere between 10 and 12 years old, but it is up to your discretion. You know you and your children’s abilities best, and can take into account those factors to decide whether it is a good idea to take kids on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

Children might seem prepared, but end up tired and needing to be carried. So, it is worth considering your ability as well as if you can carry some extra weight during the hike. 

As with adults hiking this route, it is important to have good weather when making the trek. An already difficult hike, you want to make sure you are in the best position to complete it successfully. Hike in the summer!

10. Lord of the Rings’ Attractions near the Tongariro Alpine Crossing 

Bailey high up on the crossing looks down at the valley with Mount Ruapehu or Mount Doom on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Mount Doom is the most famous!
Mount Ruapehu or Mount Doom on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

If you are a Lord of the Rings lover, you are going to love this area! There is so much to do and see that directly relates to the popular franchise. So, what are some of the top attractions you can look for as you complete this already-amazing hike? 

The Tongariro National Park holds many LOTR locations, including the following: 

Mount Doom/Mordor

Mount Ngauruhoe is Mount Doom in the LOTR films. This symmetrical volcano is hard to miss, and you’ll see it within the first half of your hike on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The volcanic landscape around the volcano was used as Mordor in the films too, and you can seriously see why when you get there. You can just picture Frodo throwing the ring into the fire – so cool!

Rangipo Desert 

This area is locally famous for its ski fields and magnificent peaks, but it is also home to a unique desert-like environment.  

Its strange landscape made it perfect for filming a scene of an orc army storming through Middle Earth.  

Best seen by driving along Desert Road and a small detour from the Crossing, there aren’t many places to pull over in this area. As long as you have a full tank of gas and some snacks, this is a great way to gear up or wind down from your hike along the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. 

Mangawhero River  

Next, head over to the Mangawhero River to see the location of Gollum’s Pool and Ithilien. The falls are the most famous in the park, thanks to their easy accessibility and great views, so this spot is worthwhile for many reasons. 

As you hike through, picture Andy Serkis dashing around the freezing waters 20 years ago while filming. He would have been dressed in a green-screen-wetsuit that allowed him to be transformed into his character, Gollum. 

The scene itself that they filmed is the one where Gollum is watched by Faramir and his archers as he catches a fish. The complete scene wasn’t filmed in the Mangawhero River, though.  

Tawhai Falls  

The rest of the scene from the Mangawhero River was shot here, at Tawhai Falls. This stunning waterfall near the State Highway 48 is the perfect place for visitors, fans and hikers alike, to stop by.  

Near the Whakapapa Ski Field, the falls allow visitors to see beautiful scenery, as well as the location where Gollum sits on a rock by the water in the movies. You may even be able to distinguish the exact spot, because people are always taking photos there! 

The rocks here are slippery, so be careful when exploring the area. We definitely would recommend avoiding the rocks if there has been rain.  

Getting to the falls is easy, because you can get to the top of the falls in about 5 minutes from a nearby parking lot, and then taking a path down to the bottom is just a few more minutes. 

Bruce Road  

If you are leaving Tawhai Falls, head toward the Whakapapa Ski Field for not only an incredible view of Mount Ngauruhoe, but also to see an area where multiple scenes from the movies were shot.  

There are multiple areas to pull over on this road, another that is a good pre- or post-hike adventure, and all offer wonderful vantage points. 

Elrond lead his elves into battle here, and Frodo and Sam captured Smeagol for the first time, as well. Now, those scenes may have included the help of CGI, but this unique scenery was at the base of it all. 

You can access the location of an iconic scene, where Frodo and Sam get lost trying to find the Black Gate of Mordor, but you’ll have to head into the ski field for that and it is much further down Bruce Road. Still, it’s possible with enough time and dedication! 

Now, if you aren’t quite remembering which scenes were shot in these locations, even as you are there in person, that is okay! There are a lot of similar landscapes throughout the films. We guess you will just have to settle in for a post-hike movie marathon to see if you can spot where you were. 

11. Can you Climb Mount Doom on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing?  

Reflection shot of Mount Ruapehu or Mount Doom on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing
Climbing Mount Doom is prohibited!

Speaking of Lord of the Rings, Mount Doom, actually called Mount Ngauruhoe, happens to be connected to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.  

You might see information out there about summiting the mountain, or even just hiking to the base, but you should not climb this mountain.  

It is not illegal to climb to the summit of Mount Ngauruhoe, however, we ask that you please hold respect for the local customs and the mountain itself. The mountain is considered sacred to the Maori people, and there are rangers that cannot ask you to stop hiking, but will ask that you consider respecting its sacred ground by not continuing forward. 

Additionally, the mountain tends to have many loose rocks and boulders, and this portion of Tongariro is not the safest for visitors. There are many reasons to avoid summiting Mount Ngauruhoe, but you can certainly snap some photos and enjoy it from a distance. There are many vantage points across the national park where you can experience ‘Mount Doom’ in all its glory. 

12. What are the best tours to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing?  

Scenic view of the green lake on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand
What a view!

When it comes to booking a tour of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, you want the best! That’s why we have two options for you to refer to.  

Both of these offer great ways to experience the hike in a way that helps you feel comfortable while hiking. If you are unfamiliar with longer hikes or simply want to learn more about the area with a local guide, these could be just the tours to fit your goals. 

Premium Tongariro Alpine Crossing Guided Trek 

This option, the Premium Tongariro Alpine Crossing Guided Trek, allows you to embark on this crossing in a safe and enjoyable way. With a qualified guide, all mountain equipment (like crampons and ice picks in the winter), footwear, the option of lunch, and some transportation, this tour is a steal at $292 NZD.  

You’ll just have to get yourself to the start of the trek, before taking the day to hike and see the sights of snowcapped mountains and bright blue lakes on the way. 

Private Tongariro Alpine Crossing Guided Walk  

This Private Tongariro Alpine Crossing Guided Walk is also a wonderful way to explore this area in a guided, yet private, way.  

The cost of this one comes in at $615 NZD per person, but includes your meal, round-trip transportation to your accommodation, a professional exclusive guide, all mountain equipment, and even clothing and footwear that you might require.  

You don’t need to have any gear to participate on this tour and, the best part, it is a private experience. It’s like you’re just doing the trek on your own, but you have all your needs taken care of. This tour is a win-win in my book, and worth the expense if you can afford it. 

After all, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hike one of the world’s best day-hikes! 

Related Read: While in the area, check out the best things to do in New Plymouth!

Thanks for reading!

Bailey smiles at the camera on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand
Thanks for reading!

Now you should be ready to plan your epic hike in Tongariro National Park. Although hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing takes a little bit of planning, believe me, it’s so worth it!

I have a ton of other blogs about traveling around New Zealand, so be sure to browse around! Some of my favorite blogs are:

Complete Guide to Visiting Raglan

The BEST Hikes in Queenstown

The BEST Hikes in Mount Cook